An A-Z of Philip Reeve’s Railhead: The Letter P

railheadcoverRAILHEAD is the long-awaited new novel by Carnegie and Guardian Book Award winner Philip Reeve. It’s the story of Zen Starling, a petty thief and self-confessed ‘railhead’ who loves to ride the rails to nowhere. It is set in a far-flung galaxy connected by thousands of gates, linked by indestructible rails – The Great Network, where hundreds of sentient trains criss-cross the universe in seconds. Zen Starling is chosen by the mysterious and powerful Raven to steal something that has the power to bring everything in this galaxy and the next to an end.

Philip Reeve comments, “There have been a lot of dystopian and post-apocalyptic stories published for children and young adults over the past decade (some of them written by me), so I thought it would make a nice change to write about a more hi-tech future where technology has answered many of our present-day problems. I’ve always wanted to have a go at an old-fashioned space opera set in a society that sprawls across dozens of different planets. But I found spaceships strangely hard to write about; flights of fancy always work best when they have a toehold in reality, and I had no store of real-world imagery to which spaceships could be anchored.

While I was mulling over this problem, I was travelling all round the country doing book events, and since I don’t drive, I generally travelled by train. Watching the rails and stations go by, I started to realise that trains are far stranger and more romantic than any spaceship… So I scrapped my space story and rebuilt it in a new setting, the Network Empire, a future human civilisation which is built around a network of railway lines that criss-crosses the galaxy, passing from world to world through mysterious hyperspace portals called K-gates. And into this mostly peaceful, mostly prosperous empire I threw a young thief called Zen, and set about seeing what adventures he could stumble into.”


Philip has been working his way through an A-Z of Railhead and today we are hosting a guest post by Philip, on the letter P. So now over to Philip:

P is for Predators

In my entry on Jangala I mentioned how the Noons had stocked their jungle world with bio-engineered wildlife for visitors to hunt. The abandoned city of Desdemor was once a hunting resort too, and on the offshore reefs there are still huge colonies of rays. In fact, with no hunters to keep the population down, the rays are becoming a bit of a problem. They are based on manta rays from the oceans of Old Earth, but they have been adapted to breathe air, and in the low gravity of the water-moon Tristesse they have no trouble flying. (I’ve seen footage of rays breaching the waves and flapping through air on lots of wildlife documentaries down the years, and always thought, ‘you wouldn’t want one of those coming at you’.)

The rays of Desdemor have been ‘improved’ in other ways to make them worthy trophies for hunting parties. They are carnivorous and aggressive, and have barbed tails which they use to harpoon their prey. But as a safety feature, they’ve been designed to strike only at moving things, so if you are attacked by rays you can usually save yourself by staying COMPLETELY STILL.

Why rays and not birds of prey or pterosaurs? Well, partly because rays are cool, but also because they are hunted with special guns, which are kept in the gunrooms of Desdemor’s hotels. My main character, Zen, is given one of these to take on his adventures. Every sci-fi hero should have a ray gun.


Philip is best known for his multi award-winning Mortal Engines quartet, which won the Nestlé Children’s Book Prize, the Blue Peter Book Award, and the Guardian Children’s Book Award. He has also won the prestigious CILIP Carnegie Medal with Here Lies Arthur.

Philip studied an art Foundation Course at Brighton, followed by a diploma at Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology. Three years as an art student having rendered him almost unemployable, he returned to Brighton where he worked in an independent bookshop while pursuing non-paying sidelines as writer/producer/director of low budget film and comedy projects. Forced by lack of funds to track down some cartooning work, Philip became a freelance illustrator where he remained for several years, before writing novels. Philip moved to Dartmoor in1998, where he now lives with his wife Sarah and his son Sam. Dartmoor with its huge expansive skies and changing landscape has been an inspiration for his work.

Philip Reeve’s website:

This guest post was provided by Philip Reeve. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups.

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